I am thrilled to welcome Dallas Woodburn to the blog. Teachers, be sure to check out her Write On! For Literacy. Be sure to read all the way through as she has some great stories to share with us.
Dallas, weclome. Please tell us a little about yourself!
I am the author of two short story collections and a forthcoming novel, represented by Foundry Literary + Media in New York City. I have written more than 80 articles for publications including Family Circle, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, CO-ED, Motherwords, Health & Home, and The Los Angeles Times; I am also a staff writer for the websites GradtoGreat.com and TweenParent.com. My short fiction has been published in the literary journals Cicada, Monkeybicycle, Palaver, flashquake, and The Hudson Valley Literary Magazine. I graduated from the University of Southern California in May 2009 with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Entrepreneurship, and I also studied Creative Writing for a semester at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. My website is http://www.writeonbooks.org and I frequently update my blog with writing tips and announcements: http://dallaswoodburn.blogspot.com.
How long have you been writing?
It’s funny, but looking back it’s difficult for me to remember a time before I loved to write! I learned to read when I was four years old, and I gobbled up books. Like many kids, I made up stories; I was compelled to write my stories down. I think this was largely due to the fact that my dad is a writer. Every night, my parents would read me bedtime stories, and every morning I would come downstairs and see my dad writing. As a result, I was very aware that someone had written the books I so loved to read. And I decided that I wanted to be someone who writes books for other people to enjoy.
My dad is my biggest fan and is the first person who reads my work – his feedback and encouragement are invaluable. I remember when I was little, he would let me type out stories on his computer once he had filed his column for the day – how special that was! I am incredibly blessed that my parents and teachers were so encouraging of my love of writing from a very young age. Also, when I was in the first and second grade I was lucky to have an amazing teacher, Diane Sather, who encouraged my love for writing. I remember she had me read one of my stories to the class. I got such a burst of joy from sharing what I had written with others. It never crossed my mind to just write for myself.
What started you writing for publication?
I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple on My Nose, when I was in fifth grade. Pimple is proof that with a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance – and, yes, a lot of support, too – a small idea can snowball into something bigger than you ever dreamed. My snowball began as a snowflake when I applied for and received a $50 grant from my elementary school to write, publish and sell a collection of my short stories and poems — but I think here’s what set my proposal apart: I would use the profits to repay my grant, so the school could offer an extra one the following year. My first printing, done at a Kinkos copy shop, was modest: twenty-five staple-bound forty-page books. Actually, they were more like thick pamphlets, but no matter – to me, they were books, my books, the most beautiful books I had ever laid eyes upon. J.K. Rowling wasn’t more proud of her first Harry Potter hardcover edition.
My fellow students and teachers, bless them, acted as if Pimple was at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List. The first twenty-five copies promptly sold in a couple of days. Can you imagine what a turbo-boost this was to a fifth-grader’s self-esteem? I was pursuing my dream, but I wasn’t pursuing it alone – my family and friends and teachers were right there with me. So I went back to Kinkos, ordered twenty-five more books – and soon sold all those as well. After three more trips to Kinkos, where the workers now knew me by name, I searched out a publishing business and ordered a few hundred glossy-covered, glue-bound, professional-looking Pimples. My little forty-page dream evolved from a snowball into a blizzard, with newspaper and radio interviews; appearances at literacy events all around California; even a “Dallas Woodburn Day” at the Santa Barbara Book Fair. I still have to pinch myself, but Pimple has sold more than 2,200 copies and I repaid two school grants.
Looking back, I was fortunate to dive into this career at such an early age because I wasn’t afraid or self-conscious about my writing. I think as we get older, we tend to lose that child-like pride and confidence in ourselves and our work. I published my first book when I was in fifth grade. I wasn’t afraid of rejection, so I sent my book out to anyone and everyone I thought might read it. Sure, I didn’t hear back from a lot of them. But I did score reviews in The Los Angeles Times, Girls’ Life Magazine, Cosmo Girl Magazine, and others. Many terrific doors were opened for me because I wasn’t afraid to hear the word “no.”
You’ve created an organization called Write On! For Literacy. What does that entail?
In a recent national assessment conducted by the National Literacy Institute (NLI) of fourth-grade students, 13% reported never reading for fun on their own; an additional 16% only read for fun once a month. I think this is a travesty. Reading has brought me so much excitement, confidence and has opened so many doors for me, including a tremendous college education and a career that I love.
Writing and reading have given me so much fulfillment and self-confidence, and opportunities that I never would have been given otherwise – like traveling to New York to be a guest on The CBS Early Show when I was writing a column for Family Circle magazine. I feel other kids should be exposed to writing and reading as well, to encourage their self-confidence and self-expression. When I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple On My Nose, in fifth grade, the teachers in my elementary school asked me to talk to their classes, and then I spoke to other classes throughout the school district. I still enjoy talking to kids about writing. At the beginning of my talk, I ask the kids if any of them are interested in writing, and usually a few shy hands raise. In contrast, at the end of my talk when I ask the same question, a lot more hands raise. The students told me they didn’t know that kids could be writers. They thought they had to wait until they were adults.
I started “Write On! For Literacy” in 2001 to encourage kids to discover joy, confidence, a means of self-expression and connection to others through reading and writing. My website http://www.writeonbooks.org features writing contests, book reviews, fun writing prompts, and more. I also hold an annual Holiday Book Drive to collect and distribute new books to disadvantaged kids — more than 10,000 books have been donated to date.
If one of our readers wants to sponsor a local holiday book drive for your organization, what should he or she do?
That would be wonderful! Write On! would love for you to start a Holiday Book Drive chapter in your area! It can be as large or small of an effort as you have the time and energy for. Many chapter leaders begin book drives by inviting friends and relatives to get involved, and then broaden their efforts to area schools, churches and community groups. I have found in my own efforts that often people in the community want to get involved with literacy endeavors, but aren’t sure how — when they hear about the Holiday Book Drive, they are very excited to help out.
If you are interested in starting a Holiday Book Drive chapter, please e-mail me at email@example.com and I will add you to our chapter list. I can also send you flyers to help spread the word and get the ball rolling!
What was your main goal when you started your website, http://www.writeonbooks.org?
With my website I wanted to create a place where young writers can go to find resources and inspiration, as well as connect with other young writers. I started the site to coincide with my latest endeavor, which is starting a publishing company, Write On! Books, that publishes anthologies of stories, poems and essays written by young writers for young audiences. The goal is to give young people a much-needed outlet for expression and connection, while also hopefully inspiring a love of reading in youth. As a young writer, sometimes it can be hard to get people to take you seriously and get editors to even read your work. I believe that young people have a voice and opinions and a life perspective that just as important as the voice of adults. Moreover, there are so many books for young people that are written by adults – but who knows what its like to be a kid better than a kid herself? I am eager to read submissions from young writers — they can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website http://www.writeonbooks.org for more information.
Do you have a set time when you write, or just whenever you get the urge?
I try to write every single day – I am most productive and happy when I have an established routine. Even if I don’t feel like writing, I tell myself to write for just fifteen or twenty minutes, and usually by the end of that time I am in the groove and write for longer. My goal is to write 1,000 words every day. I am a night owl, so it is not unusual to find me at my computer writing after midnight, when the world is quiet and I am alone with my thoughts.
Who is your favorite author?
Oh, I have too many favorite authors to count! I love Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, and F. Scott Fiztgerald. I also adore Lorrie Moore and Salman Rushdie. Aimee Bender is not only a fantastic writer, she is also a phenomenal teacher – I was lucky enough to have her as a Creative Writing professor at the University of Southern California, where she helped me take risks and grow enormously as a writer.
Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so how do you get rid of it?
One of the best things for me to do when I am facing writer’s block is to step back from the story and get away from the computer a bit. I love to go volunteer at schools and teach writing activities to kids. This is one of my favorite activities – it gives me great joy and fulfillment. Whenever I am feeling discouraged or creatively drained, going to schools and speaking to students inevitably recharges my batteries and gets me excited about writing again. So much energy and enthusiasm! It’s contagious!
I also frequently post tips for busting through writer’s block on my blog, http://dallaswoodburn.blogspot.com.
What do you recommend to aspiring authors?
Write every day, read as much as you can, and enjoy the process! As John Wooden says, “The journey is better than the inn.” In addition, publishing my books has taught me not to be afraid to take risks, and to take the initiative when you have an idea and make it happen yourself rather than letting fear and doubt make you wait. Because, why wait? Take small steps towards your dreams, and small steps can snowball into amazingly big opportunities!
How do you invent your characters?
Usually my characters start with a kernel of a personal experience or emotion that I am going through, and then pretty quickly this spins away from me and becomes a character separate from myself. Even if the eventual story is going to be written in third person, I usually like to write at least a couple pages in first person from the character’s perspective to get a sense of his or her voice. I don’t censor myself during this process – I just let the words flow freely and see what voice develops for the character.
Some authors say that they feel as though his or her characters are real, do you feel this way, and what do you think about this?
The best characters become real for me. The main character in my first novel is incredibly vivid and really guided the story, especially at the end. The story is written in first person, and a really neat thing happened – it started to feel like she was guiding the story and I was just writing what she was telling me.
Do you have anything in the works?
Yes, lots! I have started to write another novel, which I’m in the early exciting stages of – writing and waiting to see where the story will lead me. I’m also a staff writer for the websites GradtoGreat.com, TweenParent.com, and Listen magazine, a publication that encourages kids to make smart choices and stay away from drugs and alcohol. I’m having fun working on play scripts and submitting them to festivals. I’m also the coordinator for the Young Writers Program of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference – I really enjoy interacting with other young writers, and I hope to expand the Young Writers Program and continue to be involved with the conference for many years to come.
What would you say is the neatest thing you know?
I am continually impressed and inspired by the resilience, beauty, and generosity in people. Also, by the human ability to change and grow and thrive despite adversity and setbacks.
What was your favorite part about writing your book?
Sometimes the actual process of writing can be tedious and difficult, but I love the satisfaction of having written. And I love being able to share what I’ve written with others, and to hear from people who have read my work and been touched or inspired by something I have written. I believe writing can connect people and foster understanding, and that is what I hope to do in my career.
Do you like to write in complete silence or does it have to be noisy?
I like a little bit of background noise, whether it is music on my computer or the quiet hum of conversations around my at a coffee shop.
Keyboard or pen?
I used to be strictly a keyboard girl, but lately I’ve been writing freehand in big spiral notebooks in coffeeshops. I’ve found writing with pen and paper makes me feel less inhibited and more creative. In the evening, I go home and transcribe everything from my notebook to the computer, and do my first round of editing as I type things in. The process is working well for me right now.
What do you think is the hardest part about being an author?
Rejection is something that ever author has to deal with. As a writer, I joke that I could wallpaper all four of my bedroom walls with all the rejection letters I have received from editors! The important thing is not to take it personally. For whatever reason, you or your writing just wasn’t a right fit for that publication at this specific time. That doesn’t mean that they won’t love the next piece you send to them! When I get a rejection letter, I first read the comments to see if there is any advice I can glean or ways I can improve for next time. Then, I submit my story or essay or article somewhere else. It took me more than a year to find my literary agent. A year of rejection, rejection, rejection – until finally, I found my perfect match. My agent understands my writing and has faith in my career. I just had to have the patience and perseverance to find her!
What were the circumstances surrounding your decisions to become an author?
Writing is my passion – I feel most alive when I am writing and sharing my writing with others. I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I were not pursuing a career as an author! I also feel very blessed that my parents are incredibly supportive and encouraging of my dreams.
Some people say that you need to live life before you write a book, do you think that it’s experience that writes a book or imagination?
I think it’s a combination of both. I definitely think you are never too young to be a writer. As a child, I wrote stories based on things I was dealing with and thinking about at the time – everything from pimples to race issues to magical stuffed animals coming to life. I think the book is incredibly relatable to kids because I was a kid myself when I was writing it – that said, many adults enjoy it, too.
In my fiction writing, I tend to combine experience and imagination by taking a setting I know well or an experience that happened to me, and fictionalizing it. I imagine how a situation could have unfolded differently, and write about it.
The first article I had published was for Justine magazine, a publication for teens, and it was a true-life account about how I was “sweet sixteen” and had never been kissed. The editors loved my honest voice and the piece resonated with a lot of readers. I have always tried to see my young age as an advantage in my writing, rather than a disadvantage, because it allows me to write about things like teen issues with a great deal of authenticity. As a teen writing for a teen publication, I wrote an article that I would want to read!
I would encourage other writers to put themselves in this mindset – what insights and lessons does your particular background and experiences give you? How can you use these traits as an advantage in your writing life?